I’m obsessed with injecting randomness into my life. Life in the 21st century is too on-demand. You can choose exactly what to eat, exactly who to talk to, exactly what to listen to or watch. It’s a triumph of capitalism. The ability to do all these things is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but the power it gives us is out of control. We’re like the kid in the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life”, or the Krell in Forbidden Planet. We have powers we have no ability or inclination to control. It’s a great feeling to be ability to do exactly what you want, exactly when we want, but we ignore the corollary. We don’t ever have to do anything we don’t want to do.
That seems great at first glance, but then think about what life was like before (if you’re old enough to remember that is). How many of the movies, books, music etc. that you loved would you have chosen in a world of perfect access to options? I would probably still be listening to Muppet records and watching Star Wars if I hadn’t been forced to try out other things. (Not that those things aren’t awesome of course.)
Does it matter? Personally, I would hate the idea of being in a cultural rut, rehashing the same old movies and music. As a middle-aged guy, some of the times I feel most alive are when I’m listening to new music, and I would hate to give that up. But I could. I could just listen to Pearl Jam and Nirvana all day and fossilize myself in the nineties if I wanted. Aside from the personal, psychological ramifications, there are broader problems with an on-demand culture. Think about the bubbles people live in online and the damage it causes. When we don’t force ourselves out of our comfort zones and only associate with media outlets and people who share our views, it isn’t just lazy, it’s dangerous.
It’s also completely understandable. A nearly infinite multiplicity of options is paralyzing. I don’t remember where I first read about the study (possibly from Daniel Kahnemann or the Freakonomics gang?) but the Journal of Consumer Psychology published a study in 2015 that showed just that effect. When customers were given more options to choose from in selected jam flavors, they actually bought less. It’s paradoxical, right? You would think that providing more options would make customers happier and make them spend more, but there seems to be a point where analysis fatigue sets in. It’s cognitively challenging to choose from large sets of choices, and humans always default to less cognitively challenging methods when they can. Do you like Trader Joe’s? One of the reasons the chain is so successful is that consumers get a broad, but artificially limited set of choices. The options are high quality and diverse, but purposefully limited. People like this and don’t even know it.
Clearly, we would be similarly paralyzed by trying to choose in this world, so what do we do? Don’t get in a rut. That’s the easy way out. I may be slightly insane, but what I have done is to institute little tricks for embracing randomness. Perhaps my comfort with this lies in years of letting the random charts in Dungeons and Dragons books determine the fate of games. For example, I have a small city library that I go to. It’s small, but there are still obviously more books than I could possibly read in a lifetime. I have a tendency, if un-shepherded, to wander time and again to the history or science books, reading about the same topics over and over again. So, what I did was plug the Dewey Decimal System into a (supposedly) random number generating app. Then I forced myself to choose a book from whatever shelf I rolled up. So, I ended up reading one book about the natural history of cactus, and another about the problems of educating boys and girls in the modern world. Maybe that sounds like hell to you, but it really forced me to branch out into something I would have never chosen otherwise. Anyone thinking it through a bit might notice that there is a big bias in this system. There isn’t an even distribution among books; not even close. There are far more books in the .900s for example, and equally weighting the books by simple number favors books in sections with fewer volumes. Fine, I’ll tweak it a bit. Maybe count the actual number of shelves or something. That would work, but I’d look nuts. Come to think of it, I’ll fit in at the public library then, so I’m good.
Or take this example, one I haven’t actually tried yet. Have you ever gotten together with friends and spent an hour arguing over where to go to dinner or for drinks? I know you have if you’ve ever been in a city like New York or DC with a galaxy of choices. Next time I do this, I’m going to suggest rolling randomly between the people there and letting whoever “wins” choose the night’s activities. I’ll even offer to recuse myself the first time. That way we all just go along with a leader who has been chosen in a way that will hopefully curb resentment. A bit of a veto might be necessary, but only for limited abuse of power situations, such as choosing a Brazilian steakhouse for vegetarians, a strip club for mixed company, or that restaurant from The Freshman where they eat endangered animals. Otherwise you have to stick to the leader’s choices, and I think it would defuse an obnoxious situation.
My other idea is to build an app that randomly selects restaurants for you. It could be pre-populated, or you could populate it yourself with favorites. How many times have I sat there trying to decide what I wanted like an idiot, and then ended up going to Dion’s for the twelfth time in two months? This is a genuine question to my readers? Is that something anyone else would be interested in?
Randomness can backfire though. Lately, my friend Andrew Park and I have instituted a system for karaoke nights. We use the number generator to come up with a random page in the artist-sorted book. Then whoever’s turn it is has to sing a song from that page. The penalty if you don’t sing is of course that you have to do a shot. It’s fun at first, but eventually you realize you aren’t singing anything you really enjoy because the pages have too few options. I think my breaking point was when I had to watch Andrew suffer through singing “Since You’ve Been Gone”. Good blackmail material, but not good for much else.
So, the days of passively receiving the media chosen for us by our betters are over. My kids will never have to watch the Muppet Show every night on the off chance that tonight’s rerun is the Star Wars episode. They will never drop everything they are doing at four o’clock because there is a Godzilla movie playing at the same time every day. They won’t see the one movie playing at a theater like my grandparents did, and they won’t listen to whatever is playing on the radio. That’s the reality, but an embrace of randomness can help us to manage it.